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May 28, 2017

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Populism of campaign for French poll merely rehash of old rhetoric

PARIS -- French President Nicolas Sarkozy's threat to raise unilateral barriers to trade and migration unless the European Union toughens its stance has amplified a populist tone in France's caustic election campaign but could rebound against him.

Both Sarkozy and his Socialist challenger, Francois Hollande, are trying to win back voters tempted by the political extremes with simplistic proposals that experts doubt they could or would implement in practice.

Hollande has proposed a 75 percent top income tax rate for millionaires aimed at shoring up his left-wing base.

But the conservative president may have more to lose from threats, spelled out in a speech to a mass campaign rally on Sunday, to pull France out of Europe's open-border zone of passport-free travel and apply protectionist trade measures.

Sarkozy's message was aimed chiefly at supporters of far-right anti-immigration candidate Marine Le Pen, who stands third in opinion polls, but it conflicts with his efforts to project himself as a European statesman.

Scapegoating Brussels over immigration and globalization could alienate centrist voters and give the outside world the impression that France is turning inward again, as it did when voters rejected a draft EU constitution in a 2005 referendum.

"It sends off a very negative signal," Thomas Klau at the European Council on Foreign Relations said of Sarkozy's gambit.

"He is recycling a political strategy he's used successfully in the past. The fact that this time he's a president in office makes this strategy more problematic, particularly when it comes to questioning the functioning of important EU policies."

The conservative leader's vow to defy Brussels if necessary to defend French interests follows campaign pledges to halve the flow of immigrants into France, impose minimum company taxes and enforce the labeling of ritually slaughtered halal meat.

"Sarkozy's Europeanism had been one of his better traits but now he's shed his skin like a snake and donned another, at least for the length of the campaign," Harvard academic Arthur Goldhammer wrote in his French Politics blog. "The climate deteriorates by the day."

As Sarkozy shifts to the right in a battle to catch Hollande in opinion polls, the Socialist candidate has veered to the left to claw back voters from firebrand leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon, credited with up to 10 percent support.

Hollande also wants to incentivize local production, halt the relocation of companies abroad and link wage rises to economic growth. But aides say he would be a more centrist and pragmatic leader than his leftist campaign stance would suggest.

He describes himself as more "pink" than "red" and says his 75 percent tax rate proposal is symbolic and would affect very few people.

While Hollande's manifesto omits any mention of structural economic reforms, a close aide told Reuters he fully intends to work with trade unions on labour market reforms and investment policies to try to repair France's competitive disadvantage.

Hardline Socialist Arnaud Montebourg said that Sarkozy's ultimatum to Brussels smacked of "electoral panic." Fellow left-winger Alexis Corbiere called it a headlong chase after Le Pen.

Greens presidential candidate Eva Joly said that to threaten exiting the Schengen zone was akin to "stabbing Europe in the back" and "sacrificing it on the altar of Sarkozy's campaign."

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